Dispatches From The Road: Viva BrisVegas (aka Brisbane, Australia)
Brisbane, Chez Watts Photography
Waking up to your first day in Brisbane with the dual horror of a hang-over and a caffeine-withdrawal headache is never the best way to greet the early afternoon.
The whole thing comes on in waves. The first thing you feel are the shakes as you climb out of a bunk feeling like a 60-year-old reaching for your walking frame. Next is the whining pain in the front of your skull which has you thinking all this might just be a stroke. Until you notice the dehydration. You then stumble around looking for a water bottle, slowly allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the thought that something about this is terribly, terribly wrong.
So you start running back through the hazy montage of memories of what you did last night. You remember something about drinking raw rum and eating convenience store dumplings at a theatre show after-party with a bunch of actors you met from one of the universities.
The whole thing begins with some vague details about an invite from someone you know to a play with the Festival of Student Theatre and a student bar offering $2 beers to get rid of the bad mid-strength tinnies they didn’t want to take home. They weren’t great, but as the bartender pointed out, it was cheap and not the local XXXX. And of course, he was right, so naturally you capitalised on the situation and made friends.
Then you remember someone saying something about a party and a taxi ride through the one-way, knotted network of highways surrounding Brisbane. What follows is an endless series of mental polaroids of beautiful people drinking straight from wine bottles and having long conversations about acting or script writing.
Seriously. So many highways.
At some point you recall a heavy conversation with a man about how if his family overseas find out he is gay, they will probably kill him. Then you remember thinking to yourself how nursing a hangover in a hostel dorm full of people up from Melbourne to watch the footy was a bad idea and that maybe you should stop drinking. Which seemed responsible. But then someone handed you a glass, winked at you, raised their cup and toasted the words, “Viva BrisVegas.”
Now it is morning and the main thing is you didn’t do anything embarrassing that might end up in print. Or at least nothing you can recall. So you’re safe and starting to think that if this is your introduction to Brisbane, it is going to be fun times in the tropics.
The next few days give you a chance to start putting it all into context. When you first got to Brisbane, the heavy-set men in big-ass cowboy hats at the airport reminded you pretty quickly about how this place is the Australia you can buy for $2 a piece in souvenir shops across the country. It may not be desert, but it has the classic accent and The Great Barrier Reef and Steve Irwin. In fact the whole state of Queensland is his turf and if there is any truth in what they say about Australia being the world’s trailer park, Steve Irwin was king.
He was a one-man, million-dollar industry and cultural icon, sold to the world as a khaki-clad, all-Australian, G-rated, Croc Dundee for the internet generation. Everybody loved him, especially the Queensland state treasury, whose chief bean-counter probably had a stroke the moment he heard Irwin had been shot through the heart by a stingray somewhere around the Great Barrier Reef. Queensland has never been the same since.
Now Queensland’s biggest drawcard is once again its tropical climate which is all sunshine and beaches and which gets you quietly excited about the idea of re-enacting the goat scene from Jurassic Park using a gender-ambiguous plastic T-Rex named Chester and your vintage iPod shuffle.
“Where’s the goat?…”
Otherwise, if you’re being honest, you probably don’t know much about Queensland and Brisbane outside the historical cliff notes starting in about 1824 which give a sort of patchwork picture of its people as an excitable, trigger happy bunch. That year the White Man turned up in what was then called Mian-jin to start a penal colony and spent the next few decades scattering the local Indigenous people. As the years went by, Central Brisbane was built up over that spot and the people who lived there would periodically talk about secession and invading Papua New Guinea which eventually culminated in the “awkward years” from 1968 through ’87 when Joe-Bjelke Peterson ran the entire state as if it were Apartheid South Africa, forever condemning Queensland to a nation-wide reputation as Australia’s “Deep-South-Up-North”. From there the highlight reel skips through Steve Irwin’s rise and eventual death at the hands of a disgruntled stingray, to that time Oprah came over and seemed surprised to find Queensland covered in water. Like the Bible. If it were underwater.
Because of a flood.
The main thing is now is that you are here and these are the tropics where it is warm even in winter. So much so that you start to think Brisbane is a good place to be broke, the kind where you find yourself cruising up and down the Brisbane River on the free City Hopper with your legs on the seat as if it were your own private yacht and wishing you had the foresight to pre-mix your own cocktails. Then you start thinking about making it down to the Gold Coast to check out those famous beaches and have one of those “unique experiences” the brochures are always talking about. But that’s only at first. Pretty soon you learn you can’t afford the train ticket right now, which is probably a good thing since apart from the beaches, the place consists almost entirely of hotels, resorts and theme parks designed purely to fuck you up and throw back your empty wallet.
And your wallet is so very empty.
Which is pretty much a thing with Brisbane. The locals are quick to tell you that you can’t do Brisbane on the cheap, which at first sounds more like a challenge than a statement of fact. It only takes a few days of paying too much for everything for it to dawn on you that maybe they were right.
Coming here is a gamble. For years now the city has been in a construction boom. High rises are climbing out of the dirt and so too is the price of living. Yuppies seem to multiply in the city’s cafes while property developers cruise around in Maseratis. It is all very hard to come to terms with, since the place is so drop-dead gorgeous. It would feel a lot like New Orleans, in that laid back, pass-the-bottle kinda way, if it weren’t for the mess of modern looking skyscrapers radiating outward from the city’s heart.
Brisbane’s “Cultural Centre” is a pretty much a microcosm of the whole process. It is the state’s contribution to a very public East-Coast mud wrestling match over which city can claim the title of Australia’s “cultural capital”. Melbourne pimps its laneways while Sydney thinks it’s nailed down the title with the fancy private galleries in The Rocks and massive public art festivals like Vivid.
Brisbane’s strategy so far seems to mostly be about funnelling money into performing arts. The problem is that it feels imposed. You get the idea that somewhere along the line, someone in the bureaucratic machine held a long meeting and after a lot of discussion and a couple of charts, decided that if you do art big enough, it makes money. The very next day a bunch of guys in hard hats rolled up on a bulldozer to Brisbane’s South Bank waterfront and got down to business. Now there’s a lovely, 30-dollar-a-meal restaurant strip and some buildings for professional arts organisations in a very cold, modern concrete architecture.
…Swear there was a pub here yesterday.
This is not to say that Brisbane isn’t a fun town. During the week there’s usually something free and public to do and when you want to be distracted by the devil, you go get wasted in the The Valley. If you have money and an afternoon to burn, you could try hanging out in New Farm.
But it’s the West End with all the character. It’s all very bohemian. You’ll be waiting in line at the super-cheap falafel place on the corner of Boundary and Vulture St while a tall, bad-ass looking woman with dreads talks very intensely to the Middle Eastern-Australian guy behind the counter about protests in Istanbul. You can live off the $4 wraps they sell there and if you go by in the evenings, there will be beautiful people sitting at the tables drinking their wine as Middle Eastern men drink tea and discuss important things.
Follow the music. It is everywhere and chances are you’ll end up at a place like Black Star cafe, watching some jazz band while drinking amazing coffee at 10pm and casually practicing being bohemian. In the morning, your other choice is the iconic Three Monkey’s coffee house down the way that will cost you $4 for a latte and the balance of your savings account for a slice of cake.
Black Star Cafe
The problem is, none of it will last. Money runs BrisVegas and what makes places like the West End so special will disappear over time as property prices in the area rise and demand grows for apartments with a riverside or CBD view. Even now, there are plans for 12-storey apartment buildings in the area which will translate to higher land values and more yuppies looking for somewhere safe, but edgy.
Even the backpacker hostels have a tinge of desperation and foreboding. From France to Taiwan, people with Masters Degrees in things like Engineering, Nursing or Languages come over and hole themselves up in these places on “working holiday visas”, hoping someone might give them a job in the sunshine. But Queensland is filled with people doing the exact same thing and pretty soon money runs dry, the inbox is empty and they take jobs working as fruit pickers or cleaners somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.
Which is a sobering thought. Somewhere out there, right now, someone is getting incredible kicks from having a bright young engineer furiously scrub their toilet.
So people stay up late. They drink, and they smoke, and they talk. At times, it feels like a film. You find yourself sitting outside, at a table with the Chinese hostel manager, watching him chain smoke cigarettes and talk about what his great grandfather was doing during the revolution. The next night you end up drinking box red wine with a depressed French guy until very early in the morning, as he tells you in bone-broken English all about how bad France is right now and how he can’t find a job because his accent is too heavy.
“Everything is a risk,” he says and explains how if he can’t find work soon, he’ll have to go home, do something else and try again.
More goon for your melancholy?
It’s the kind of message you don’t really get until you’re out one night, looking at the city from across the river. You think about how nothing lasts and how this city is changing quickly, almost right before your eyes. Viva BrisVegas, you say. And then there’s a sign you never noticed before. Something with big, bold print that reads;
ACT NOW ON THIS EXCITING PROJECT.
BE ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES.
Brisbane is the fifth story in a travel series about Australia. If you want more, click to read about Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide.
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